6 February 2013
Drug Addictions: A Public Health Problem, Not a Crime
According to the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, as well as President Obama’s top adviser on drug policies, Gil Kerlikowske put it, “Drug addiction is not a moral failing on the part of the individual, but a chronic disease of the brain that can be treated” (White House Official Says). Imagine a close family member were to admit to having a struggle with a drug addiction; the first response would not be to send them to jail, but to put them into professional help to overcome the addiction and get healthy again. So why wouldn’t out government do the same with its citizens? The National Institute of Justice published that 38,000 State and local governments add an additional fine and penalty to convicts whose crime included drugs (White House Official Says). In the past years, drug abuse in the United States has been continuously increasing, especially in young adults. Currently, the United States is the number one nation in illegal drug use (Branson). Unlike in the United States, drug rates in the United Kingdom have been decreasing in the recent years. Maybe it’s time for the US to adapt a system to combat drug abuse more like that of the UK. Instead of treating drug addictions as a criminal offence it should be treated as the health issue it actually is.
In 2011 there were 1,531,251 arrests for drug law violations such as possession and sale of illegal drugs (Crime and Us Law Enforcement). This number is not including arrests where the convict is under the influence or has an existing addiction. In the 10 U.S. metropolitan areas, an average of 71% of all males in 2011 were tested positive for being under the influence when taken into custody (Drug Free.). In that same year, 23% of all violent crimes, including property crimes, were done by people who then tested positive for being under the influence of an illegal drug (Drug Free.). Roughly 21 million Americans ages 12 or older were in need of substance abuse treatment at a specialty facility but were unable to receive care in 2010 (White House Official Says).
At this point, the United States views drug use as primarily a criminal act. Many Elementary school children go through the D.A.R.E. program which is designed to teach and establish a drug resistance at a young age. Most high schools have a ‘zero tolerance’ policy where, if even if it is the student’s first offence, suspension or expulsion are the primary punishments (Zero Tolerance Drug Policy). In theory, these policies should keep young adults from getting involved in drugs, but they fail to take into account why most people get into drugs.
People tend to start to do drugs because there is a part of them they wish to change. In school adolescents will want to try drugs because they feel everyone is doing it and they want to fit in. Sometimes they so they can experience the high and escape their life and just feel good for a while. Some have mental illnesses such as depression and on the drugs is the only times they don’t feel sad. Others will feel the need to rebel against their parents and they think drugs are the perfect why. Some teens are just bored (Why Do People Do Drugs). Often times when adults have a strong drug addiction it is because they developed one at a younger age and were never able to overcome it. Others do it for the same reason as the younger population: they’re bored, depressed, stressed, in need of an escape and to relax, or even to relive their youth. These addictions begin to mess with the natural chemical make-up of the brain so the brain actually craves these drugs to replace the missing chemicals causing a physical addiction. A mental addition can develop as well once the addict becomes addicted to the euphoric highs the drugs give off (DrugFacts). These people don’t get into drugs to get addicted, but in an attempt to fix part of their life. Once they are on these drugs, they lose control of themselves and don’t make choices they would if there were clean.
America tends to take a more militant approach to battling drug-related crimes. This could be blamed on presidents such as President Nixon and President Reagan. Nixon coined the term “war on drugs” and in 1984 Ronald Reagan signed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act which permitted federal authority in drug investigations and made much harsher punishments for drug offenders (Drug Courts). In the US legal system, drug addicts are treated as burdens and delinquents and not suitable to be a United States citizen. It’s almost as if the country just doesn’t want to deal with these people who so desperately need help.
This attitude is gradually starting to change. As mentioned earlier, Gil Kerlikowske and the Obama administration feel as if a different system is needed to try and combat this growing drug problem. One system unique to the US is the establishment of Drug Courts. Drug courts are:
[…]Special courts that seek to end drug use by merging the legal power of the criminal justice system with the therapeutic aims of drug treatment. Defendants who are diverted to drug court, usually first-time, non-violent offenders, must participate in rigorous drug-treatment programs and other social-services programs, such as job training and counseling. Drug courts monitor defendants by subjecting them to frequent drug tests and conducting regular status checks. (Drug Courts)
As of 2002 there were 697 drug courts spread throughout the 50 US states (Drug Courts). Since the drug courts are a part of the United States’ legal system they have the right to reinforce all rehabilitation orders. If the defendant does not comply with the judge’s terms they will be forced to serve a more serious punishment. If they are rearrested for another crime they are no longer in the drug courts but back in the normal judicial system. With this set of rules, the US is still focused a lot on punishing the user rather than helping them become a better citizen (Drug Courts). On average the US government spends $30,000 annually on each inmate (Branson), so if instead of putting all drug offenders in jail, but putting them in rehabilitation centers, the government could save over $4.5 million. This money could instead be spent on schools and public improvements. Not only would a new system would benefit the people in the rehabilitation centers where they can start a new life for themselves, but it would also benefit the general public. In 1925 during the prohibition era H. L. Mencken wrote:
“Prohibition has not only failed in its promises but actually created additional serious and disturbing social problems throughout society. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic but more. There is not less crime, but more. … The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.” (Branson)
This still rings true today. Instead of decreasing amounts of drug arrests it has only created a population that continues to take part in these illegal activities and a population angry at the federal government. Again, it has been brought up that America should adopt a policy closer to the UK’s that the government should help break the people of their habits rather than punishing them.
In the United Kingdom their 2010 drug policy is ” ‘Reducing demand, restricting supply, building recovery: supporting people to live a drug-free life’ and is still used to this day (Drug Strategy). Unlike in the United States, the UK’s goal isn’t so much as to punish the drug addict but to get them help. Their main goal is to help individuals get the help they need and to overcome their addictions. They are helped to get jobs and houses and put into treatment centers where they are offered the support they so desperately need. By doing so, the UK hopes to reduce the demand for illegal drugs thus, reducing the supply (Drug Strategy). In the United Kingdom drug levels have been declining in the recent years. In England specifically, the injecting drugs, heroin, and crack incidents have been declining increasingly as well. In fact, the HIV rates within the injecting drug users are one of the lowest in the world. Marijuana still remains the most common drug but even that is beginning to decline in popularity and usage. The number of people receiving treatment for their addictions continues to grow (A Fresh Approach to Drugs 9).
Even though it appears that this new system would benefit all Americans there are still people skeptical about taking a more health-oriented approach rather than judicial one to drugs. Vice President Joe Biden said, “Quite frankly, more cops on the street is one of the best ways to keep drugs off the street.” (White House Official Says). Others strongly oppose the drug courts. Many feel that drug courts are not the solution to the growing drug problem in the United States. They prefer the scare tactics originally used and believe that the traditional route is the better solution. With the drug courts, people fear that weak cases brought up in legal courts will just be dumped and dealt with in the drug courts leaving the offender with a much lighter punishment (Drug Courts). There are also the people who, of course, believe that a harsher punishment is the route to take. Brooklyn Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently visited Singapore and Vietnam where sings that read “Death to drug dealers” are posted and they execute dealers in order to potentially save others’ lives and supports a more extreme war on drugs (U.S. Could Learn from Singapore). He says, “Think about the number of people who die from drug use here in this country. And yet we don’t take it seriously enough to dissuade people.” Potentially, this new system could save more lives that would even be lost on the old system.
Creating a system that could potentially stop treating drug addicts as delinquents and degrading them, but instead helping them regain their humanity and help them overcome their struggles could create many opportunities in America. With the money originally used for the inmates, the government could instead spend it on improving schools, feeding the homeless, rebuilding areas devastated from natural disasters, and so much more. Instead of lives being practically ended by sitting in jail and being unable to get a job once released, people who once struggled with addictions can restart their life and become an involved citizen of the United States. Not only will the government save money and create better people, but drug rates will be lowered if the United States adopts the UK policy of drug abuse prevention. Instead of treating drug addicts as criminals a more humane approach should be taken which offers them aide and a solution to hopefully rid them of their drug addiction forever. Once the demand for the drug is gone, slowly the supply will diminish as well, eventually ending the United States’ war on drugs.